For him, being in prison was a shock - but finding work after was worse

Posted: February 24, 2011

Clarence Harris thought he had it all figured out. He graduated from Bucknell University in Lewisburg with a triple major and a high grade-point average.

He became a chef, got married and had two children.

But all his plans changed in 2001, when he and his wife separated and he began having financial troubles.

"I started falling behind on my bills," said Harris, 46, of Southwest Philadelphia. "And checks started bouncing."

The self-proclaimed hard worker and family man soon found himself before a judge, pleading guilty to theft by deception and to writing bad checks.

He was sentenced to six to 24 months in state prison and wound up serving 18.

Harris was shocked to learn that his first cell mate was imprisoned for murdering his child. His second had dismembered someone.

But the real surprise for the college grad came after prison, when he tried to re-enter the job market.

"I've been on a constant job search," he said. "I've struggled to find employment in keeping with my experience and training."

Harris was one of many formerly incarcerated people who testified before a City Council Committee on Public Safety hearing yesterday.

The hearing looked at barriers faced by individuals with criminal records.

Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller is pushing a measure she calls "Ban the Box," which would bar employers from asking prospective workers whether they have been convicted of a felony.

Miller said the testimony she heard over three hours yesterday left her more determined to change job-screening standards.

"It's really discouraging that people can't find work because of a misdemeanor, felony or even just an arrest," Miller said.

Witnesses said they faced problems that included not just finding employment but also obtaining housing, higher education, child care and medical assistance.

Another committee hearing on Miller's "Ban the Box" bill is slated for March 16 at City Hall.

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